A day in the life of a college student with OCD
My mind is already racing as I approach the front doors of my university this chilly spring morning.
Everyone is sick this time of year! Don’t touch the door handle or you’re going to get sick and have to miss school and you’ll end up getting bad grades!
I feel anxious, but I’m grateful the door handle are a loop variety that I can stick my forearm through and pull open with my arm, leaving the palms of my hands “safe” from pathogens.
I enter the building and begin walking down the hallway toward my first class.
People are so dangerous these days, becoming violent and committing crimes. What if one of the people you pass by commits a crime and you need to identify him or her?
I start to feel extremely anxious. As I walk, I begin memorizing the hair color, height, and clothing of anyone who looks upset or tense in case that is a sign that they are going to commit a crime that day.
This makes no sense. I probably look tense and upset and I’m not going to commit a crime!
I try to stop and just focus on walking to my classroom.
What if one of these people commits a crime and because you didn’t memorize enough about them, they get away, and then they commit more crimes, and its all your fault!
The anxiety overwhelms me and I start memorizing their profiles again. Its exhausting.
Finally, I get to my class. I sit in the chair that seems safest, in case someone comes in to commit a crime. Throughout the hour of class my eyes repeatedly go to the door, checking to make sure no one threatening is standing there. Its exhausting, and hurts my neck to turn and check over and over, but the anxiety of not doing it is too strong.
Today we have a test in my first class. As the teacher hands it out, I pull out a pencil.
What if your pencil breaks, and you go to reach in your backpack for a new one, and your teacher accusing you of cheating?
I feel anxious, and grab another pencil before I get my test.
I’ve studied well (too well—I spent hours and hours reading and re-reading the chapter in the textbook, just in case I didn’t understand or remember perfectly. Sometimes the same paragraph would be re-read ten or more times as my brain kept mistrusting that I had “really read it right” and made me too anxious to move on) and I know the material. But as I mark answers and move on, I start to second guess myself.
Maybe you didn’t read or understand that question right. You should read it again, just to be sure. If you fail this test, you may fail the whole class and the whole semester!
This happens for the duration of the test—anxiety-provoking thoughts followed by the compulsion of re-reading the question and making sure I selected the right answer. I don’t end up changing any of my answers. They were all correct and I knew it, or at least part of me knew it. The other part of me, the OCD made me doubt what I knew. I am lucky I finished the test on time.
I’ve only been at school for an hour now, and it feels like I’ve been here for days. I’m mentally and physically exhausted from the intrusive thoughts, anxiety, and compulsions.
But I haven’t even made it to the worst part of the day—the bathroom break. After several semesters, I have found the bathrooms that provoke the least anxiety and fewest compulsions. Bathrooms that you can just walk into and don’t have to open a door to get into. Bathrooms with large stalls where your body and backpack have the least number of opportunities to get contaminated. Bathrooms with automatic flushing toilets and automatic sinks and automatic paper towel dispensers.
Still, my anxiety kicks it up a notch as I head into this den of germs.
As I enter the stall, I am not careful enough and my backpack brushes against the handle. I memorize which part of the backpack has become contaminated, determined to not touch that part for several days until the germs go away. I carefully unroll the toilet paper a few squares and throw those away. Then I unroll it a few more squares and use those to shut and lock the stall door.
I make sure the seat cover is covering every bit of seat. If it doesn’t, I use some more toilet paper to add to the barrier. After doing my business, I use another few squares of toilet paper to unlock the stall as I leave. I wash my hands like a nurse about to do surgery, and then head out.
All of this was a lot worse back and everything took a lot longer when things were not automatic.
As I leave and begin walking down the hall to my next class, I notice my shoelace is untied.
Oh no, it touched the restroom floor! Its covered in germs. If you touch it, you’ll for sure get sick and die. But you don’t want to trip either!
I find a chair in the hallway, grab two antibacterial wipes from my large backpack stock, and using one wipe in each hand, I tie my shoe.
When lunch time comes, I find a chair and pull out my lunchbox. I use my antibacterial wipes before I pull it out, after I open it, and after I open the bag that hold my sandwich. I can taste the chemicals from the wipe along with the peanut butter. I get a text from my roommate. I carefully place my sandwich back into the back. After checking my phone and responding, I sanitize my hands again before carefully removing my sandwich.
By the time I get home from school, I feel as if I have just walked through a hurricane for ten days straight. The 6+ hours of constant OCD chattering in my head, constant anxiety, and constant compulsions totally wear me out. I collapse on the couch for several hours, unable to do anything. Then I peel myself off, and get to work on next month’s homework. I have to keep myself extra ahead in my homework, just in case I get in a car accident or develop a terrible disease and fall behind. If I’m always ahead, such crises won’t have as big of an impact.
I dread going back to school the next day. I will likely experience all of the same obsessions and compulsions, along with many more, depending on the day and what I encounter.
Some days I’ve wanted to give up on school. Why put myself through all this? Is it worth it?
But I keep plodding along, one day at a time, pursuing my dream. It has taken me 3 more years than it takes the average student, but in 2 months, I will finally graduate with my degree!
If you have OCD too, don’t give up! Talk to a psychologist, talk to your school’s accessibility department, rally your friends for support, and pursue your dream!
Each day and each semester in the life of a college student with OCD is difficult, but the reward is priceless! I am so glad I didn’t give up!